Nationals surge through playoffs to emerge as new rulers of National League
The Senior Circuit is now the Nationals' League.
In the span of two weeks on the October calendar, the Washington baseball club went from shaky wild card participant to postseason juggernaut to seemingly all-powerful World Series force. In that same time, three teams that won their divisions - all of which stood in Washington's way in one sense or another this season - have fallen and crashed and will view the remainder of the 2019 season as also-ran couch-dwellers.
It's been quite the metamorphosis - swift and definitive, like a sneak attack. And the effects could be felt for a long time.RIVERA: Astros show old-school pitching philosophy still plays
With the Nationals' Game 4 victory Tuesday and sweep of the Cardinals in the NLCS, ownership of the National League changed hands. It's no longer the Dodgers who hold firm to the league's deed, despite 106 wins and back-to-back World Series appearances. It's not the Cardinals, who are occasionally known to own the designation but who didn't belong in the discussion this time. And it's not the upstart Braves, who again found a way to underachieve and lost to the team that didn't belong. No, it's the Nationals who now hold the keys.
Sure, it's a small sample size. Yes, they have questions this offseason. But a World Series berth can do wonders for a franchise. It can change minds. It can bring new energy and a new mission. So when you look at what the Nationals are, and what they could become, it might be a tall order for any team to force them into an abdication of their new throne.
They won the pennant with their calling card: dominant starting pitching. Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin each did their thing and showed why no team wants to face Washington in a short playoff series. Though it wasn't the case at the start of the season, there's currently not another rotation in the National League that can match it. And the rotation probably isn't going anywhere. Strasburg can opt out of his contract after this season, but given how October has played out and his juicy player option on the horizon for 2023, it seems unlikely he would do so.
The Nationals offense was also more than formidable against St. Louis, outscoring an inept Cardinals squad 18-6 across the four NLCS games. The contributions came from those you expect (Anthony Rendon, 1.029 OPS), those you don't (NLCS MVP Howie Kendrick, 1.012 OPS) and from all places in between. Like Strasburg, Rendon could be in a new uniform next season. But, as with Strasburg, one shouldn't underestimate the effect of a deep October run on the Nats' ability to retain Rendon's services.
As for those two emerging outfielders in their early 20s? Washington can expect Juan Soto (20) and Victor Robles (22) to blossom further to potentially form the top outfield duo in baseball - or at least something close to that. At their young ages, Soto and Robles are already a high-end blend of power and speed and massive potential. Their growth in the coming years will be fun to watch.
If the Nationals so desire, they have pockets deep enough to pursue any free agent at any position. A World Series berth, and especially a World Series championship, only enhances the team's status as a desirable destination. So, ultimately, there an excellent chance that the 2020 Nationals will look like a lot like the 2019 Nationals, perhaps even better, but definitely more experienced and likely even more driven.
A lot can change in a single postseason, and a lot has already changed in Washington. The Nationals finally look like the team many expected for so long - a team that seems poised to pace the National League for a long time.
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